Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Jacques Tardi's War of the Trenches

It Was the War of the Trenches by Jacques Tardi
Casterman 1993/Fantagraphics 2010
I've tried to read legendary French cartoonist Jacques Tardi in the past but could never quite get into him. Obviously I wasn't reading the right stuff, because holy shit, Jacques Tardi! It Was the War of the Trenches, Tardi's long in-production World War I chronicle, finally saw release from Fantagraphics in 2010. I'm a big aficionado of Garth Ennis's superb war comics, in part because of how good they are compared to most other war comics, but now I can see I was clearly missing something by not reading Tardi. It Was the War of the Trenches is an unmitigated masterpiece.

All war is horrifying, but the horrors of the Great War and the scars left on the countries of Western Europe can never be overstated. Dedicated to Tardi's grandfather who fought in the war, Tardi very clearly states his intent in the forward. It Was the War of the Trenches is not a history, "but a non-chronological sequence of situations, lived by men of have been dragged through the mud... there are no protagonists... nothing but a gigantic anonymous scream of agony." And Tardi achieves that. In a series of unconnected short vignettes, Tardi vividly translates the experience of the War, visually in his stunning cartooning, with its cartooniness and unblinking hyperdetail, and in his equally astonishing prose, at once elegiac and straightforward.

There are no glorious battles, no victory, no real point to the effort, just horror, pain, blood, mud, disease, clouds, poison, bullets, fire, confusion, loss, guts leaking, rats scampering, food and bodies rotting, pointlessness, brutality, everywhere ceaseless unrelenting death. These aren't warriors on a battlefield but men and boys turned against other men and boys who had no desire to harm the other except that's what those in power told them to do so they do it, with increasing efficiency piling on senseless death upon senseless death upon senseless death.

It Was the War of the Trenches is a transformative work, moving and breathtaking in its use of the comics language - Tardi doesn't describe the war or even translate its unknowable horror so much as build a time machine and transport you into the minds and bodies of the men in the trenches as they fought and died in those hideous trenches that cut a canyon across the soul of a country and of a time and of a generation of innocent and guilty alike. Tardi puts you there, there in that awful time and place, there, lost and dying and suffering against a tide of fire and bullets and mud and shit.

This is a bracing, original, necessary masterwork, a stunning piece that captures the darkest part of the human condition and our shared history, as much a vital document of the dark open to the 20th century as a timeless treatise on the experience of all war. Jacques Tardi is widely regarded as one of comics' supreme cartoonists. It Was the War of the Trenches shows why.

The availability in the United States of Jacques Tardi (and so many more) is thanks to the efforts of the great Kim Thompson, who passed away this year. Thompson edited, translated and published It Was the War of the Trenches, and the work stands not just as a testament to Tardi's extraordinary skill but Thompson's as well.

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